Roger Ebert, critic to the masses: America loses a favorite guide to the movies

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Film critic Roger Ebert possessed one of the two most famous thumbs on the planet. Along with the late Gene Siskel, his fellow critic, friend and rival, Mr. Ebert popularized a well-known pop culture gesture -- the "two thumbs up" occasionally awarded movies reviewed on the popular PBS series "At the Movies" for 23 years.

Mr. Ebert, 70, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic was considered a populist in his tastes, but he was also a champion of low-budget and obscure art films. In 1999, he launched Ebertfest, an annual film festival that celebrated independently financed films. Between his syndicated newspaper column, his books, his PBS show and his online presence, Mr. Ebert was considered one of the most influential critics in journalism. Even after his jaw had to be removed, he maintained a vigorous and critical online presence.

For decades, movie studios coveted a "thumbs up" from Mr. Ebert almost as much as they prayed for strong opening weekends for their films. The critic's ubiquity and marketing savvy made him a millionaire many times over, yet Mr. Ebert never lost touch with what ordinary viewers liked.

He was generous in his praise and frank in his condemnation. As a writer of B-movie screenplays in the 1970s, Mr. Ebert took films seriously and personally. The New Yorker's late Pauline Kael may have been more influential among their fellow critics, but Roger Ebert's thumb was what most of America's moviegoers looked for when deciding what to see.

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